Leela KoenigHead of Oracy

Young people take on the world's problems - and love it

Wednesday 09 Aug 2017

After the World Schools Debating Championships our Head of Oracy discusses why debating real time events is important for young people

What is it with older generations and the voice of the young? There are complaints of apathy and disengagement among selfie-obsessed millennials. But, are young people really disengaged? Or are the generations in power too preoccupied to ask for their opinions?

There is actually a lot of evidence to say that young people enjoy discussing real world events and furthermore, that doing so boosts their ability to think critically. A recent report from Dr Jacqueline Harding, commissioned by The Week Junior revealed that 69% of young people (8-15) felt strongly that linking real world events to what they learn in school helps them prepare for when they leave school.

Indeed, anyone who has seen young people debate a topic knows what is possible when you give young people the right tools and a stage upon which to deliver their arguments. We often hear amazed audiences at our competitions gasp; “I didn’t know they could do that” or “These young people are simply brilliant”.

To enable this to happen, we often come back to four key points that we reiterate when advising mentors or teachers:

  1. Ensure that it is clear that you expect students to give it their very best shot and that you trust they can do it
  2. Ensure they know enough (not everything!) about the topic for debate
  3. Be very clear about what their role is in the debate
  4. Make it exceptionally well understood that they will be listened to and that their ideas will be taken seriously

Tackling tough topics in action:

Last week, England and Wales (supported by the ESU), among 50+ other nations, represented their nations at the World Schools Debating Championships, as they have done for the past 29 years.

The motions they debate at the championships are always a mix of current world affairs and issues that have ongoing relevance. Here is a selection of this year’s topics, where students were asked to either to argue for or against:

  • Banning for-profit universities and colleges
  • Denying tax-exempt status to religious institutions that refuse to appoint female leaders
  • Making labour union membership compulsory in large industries
  • The idea that NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe does more harm than good

The final, which saw Team England and Team Singapore battle it out, was on "This House supports restrictions on free speech to combat the rise of right-wing populism".

If this makes you gasp, the teams have just one hour to prepare for their side of the argument and their coaches are not allowed to be in the preparation room!

Months of training go into perfecting what happens in that one hour. These young people have mastered the ability to combine their knowledge of what separates a good from a bad argument (ie quality of evidence and logic) with their pre-existing knowledge of the topic. They work together collaboratively as a team to build up their case.

Granted, these teams represent their nations’ best, but this practice is replicated in thousands of classrooms across the world, from Ghana to Chile and from Hong Kong to England, they brave the same level of topics with the same kind of determination.

Students tell us they love discussing real world events and that it helps them prepare for the world. I can’t think of a better reason to have a debate club in every school!


View some more of the topics at the World Schools Debating Championships here.

Sign up and find out more here: https://www.esu.org/our-work/world-schools-debating

If you’re interested in seeing more young people express their views after careful thought and training, check out the annual Chamber Debate that we organise in the House of Lords Chamber, in collaboration with their outreach communications team.

If you’d like to try this out for yourself with your students or children, we upload a new motion every Monday via Twitter @ESUdebate and our resources page.

If you have participated in World Schools we would love to hear from you. Get in touch with our alumni officer and come to our events!